BYU’s Brandon Davies and the Ethics of Playing Through a Mistake

This week the dismissal of sophomore Brandon Davies from the third ranking college basketball team in the nation – Brigham Young University’s Cougars – for admitting he violated BYU’s honor code prohibiting premarital sex raises important questions about how we reconcile ourselves to living with high standards.

While a study released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 27% of men ages 15 to 24 say they have never had a sexual encounter – up from the 2005 survey – it still means that 73 percent of young men have had sex, just as Brandon Davies admits he did.

The issue of course is that Davies committed to an honor code required of all students and employees of BYU. It is the price of admission to study or work at an institution that is inescapably clear about what it stands for.

In addition to chastity and leading a virtuous life, the code everyone at BYU must sign stipulates the standard of behavior is honesty, being law-abiding, not using obscenities, respecting others, attending church regularly, and abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee.

The code also requires adherence to dress and grooming standards, as well as expecting everyone to encourage others in their commitment to comply with the honor code. The code is aligned with the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), which sponsors BYU. Those not members of LDS are expected to adhere to the honor code with the exception of attending LDS services.

Davies was the team’s leading rebounder and scorer so BYU’s dismissing him from the team for violating the code likely puts in jeopardy a winning season.  The university put conviction over the PR and alumni benefits the campus derives from a winning team.

The issue for me isn’t about whether BYU is unrealistic in its standards – although I am concerned that the expectation of the highest standards be met with faculty and administrators modeling constantly how to live the principles and deal with one’s vulnerabilities. The issue for me isn’t even the potential for hypocrisy if everyone at BYU isn’t in reality adhering to those standards while some who aren’t get punished.

The issue is really very personal, not institutional. It is what happens when an individual makes a commitment to himself about how he will act and then falls short. How is he helped in dealing with that inevitability?

One of Davies teammates said of Davies’ apology to the team, “He told us everything. He told us he was sorry and that he let us down. We just held our heads high and told him it was OK, that it is life, and you make mistakes, and you just got to play through it.”

Inevitably there are consequences for not honoring commitments. Part of playing through it for Davies will be finding out what, in addition to dropping him from the team, BYU may impose as further punishment.

The other side of setting very high standards has to be helping individuals grow into honoring and living their commitments. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has not been successful helping priests live their commitment to celibacy and certainly had its head in the sand routing out pedophile priests.

As a teaching institution, what does BYU do in this high profile case, and all the others that have escaped media attention, when someone falls short of acting in accordance with highest personal standards?

The danger of expecting a great deal of oneself is that mistakes can create a sense of being unworthy. While that may make some try harder, it can also have the effect, in an environment where one doesn’t feel supported or encouraged in one’s growth, to rationalize that the standards are impossible; the default position can then become that rules are made to be outmaneuvered, that nothing matters except one’s own cleverness in  getting ahead and not being caught.

It is interesting to consider what kind of future corporate or community leader Brandon Davies might become based on playing through this very public intrusion into his private life and failure to keep his commitment.

It reminds me about the potential for ethical leadership in companies and of the cynics who say that ethical leadership is too idealistic a concept – that men and women will always fall short of that standard so even talking about it sets a leader up for failure. They believe that in the constant press for short-term results, a leader can’t do right by a company’s shareholders if he or she is focused on integrating ethical considerations into business strategy.

The cynics are wrong.

Setting the highest standards for leaders is a sustainable approach. No question it is hard work for both future leaders and those who will mentor them.

The hard part is knowing what you want to stand for. When you have that down, the mistakes are something you will have to be willing to play through.

Gael O’Brien      March 4, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.

Explore posts in the same categories: Code of Conduct, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Leadership, Sports

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